On a warm, sunny day in the town of Hermann, M0., a baby boy was brought into the world, and he would come to play a significant role in the annals of journalism. Born on the 24th of August, 1874, the boy was christened William Harry Zorn. However, the world would come to know him as Bill, an endearing moniker used by his friends. He was the scion of a German family; his parents were immigrants who set up home in the quiet town of Hermann, where his father held sway as a well-established businessman.
However, this tranquil life would not last long as the Zorn family, led by the patriarch, decided to pull up their roots and transplant themselves to Potosi, Mo., while Bill was still just a small boy. German was the lingua franca of the Zorn household, a linguistic tradition that Bill would uphold for the rest of his life. He embraced the language with grace and fluency, a testament to his deep-rooted heritage.
At the tender age of 9, a young Will found himself on a journey to West Plains, his father W.J. Zorn at his side. His father's entrepreneurial acumen paved the way for him to swiftly ascend the ranks of West Plains' business community. W.J. Zorn not only became one of the founding figures of the West Plains Bank but was also a real estate mogul, owning several buildings and maintaining a strong presence in the local stock market.
The Zorn family, an epitome of a typical Victorian household, consisted of seven members. Apart from Bill, there were four more children, two brothers, and two sisters. These siblings would have their own stories, stories as distinct as the individuals themselves. The Zorn family shared their lives, dreams, and ambitions within the confines of a picturesque Victorian home situated on East Cleveland Street. This home, known today as The Yellow House on what is know West Trish Knight Street, was where they spent their formative years.
Education was of paramount importance in the Zorn family, and Bill, like his siblings, received his early schooling at the West Plains public schools. There he was taken under the wing of the principal of the school, Professor W.H. Lynch. Lynch was a luminary in the field of education in Missouri and a prolific newspaper owner in Howell County. Lynch believed in an education that was not confined to textbooks alone. He believed in the potency of real-world knowledge, and thus, he encouraged his students to glean a part of their education from local and national newspapers.
Years later, in a nostalgic reflection of his own schooldays, Bill wrote, "Where you find a Lynch student, right there you will find a good man or woman." In a heart-stirring speech delivered in Springfield in March 1932 to the members of the Ozark Press Association and the dedication of a bronze tablet to Lynch's memory, he spoke fondly of his beloved mentor. "He taught other things finer than any textbook holds, character, sympathy, kindness, friendship, gentleness and above all, service," he said, echoing the sentiments of the many students who had been influenced by Lynch's unorthodox yet effective methods of teaching.
At the age of 15, the adolescent Bill found himself employed under J.C. Kirby, a well-known pioneer newspaper editor of Southern Missouri. Kirby was the owner of the Howell County Gazette at the time and was an ardent Democrat. His political inclinations resonated strongly in his paper, serving as a counterbalance to the Republican-leaning paper that also operated in West Plains.
Bill's career in journalism started from the ground up. He began his tenure as a "printer's devil," a moniker for a junior printing staff, wherein he grappled with ink and type, setting type with ink-stained hands. Despite his father's elevated position in society, Bill was never afforded any special treatment. This led to him carving out his own path, and in many respects, becoming a self-made man, honing his skills in reporting and editing, and learning the nuances of journalism at an early age.
As he progressed in his career, he concurrently pursued an education at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. As he matured, Zorn took flight from West Plains and found himself in a new position as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. This was not the pinnacle of his career, however. After a couple of years, he entered into a partnership with Henry Smith of Hutton Valley and West Plains. Together, they leased and eventually bought the Lamar Democrat newspaper in Lamar, Missouri, with Zorn serving as both the editor and manager.
In the year 1900, Zorn, demonstrating a knack for business acumen and the strength of self-determination, sold his interest in the Lamar Democrat, paving his path back to West Plains. In an act that would cement his status as a local newspaper mogul, he acquired the Howell County Gazette from James T. Bradshaw, a seasoned newspaperman and notable Democratic leader, in 1902.
It was a time when political temperatures in Howell County reached fever pitch, fueling the discourse within the Howell County Gazette and its competitor, the West Plains Journal. They stood as representatives of their respective political ideologies - a democrat versus a republican - their daily issues full of lively debates and intriguing opinions.
However, business pragmatism soon intervened, as Zorn and his competitor Arch T. Hollenbeck recognized that West Plains was too compact to sustain two daily newspapers. An agreement was struck to curtail their publications to a weekly schedule, reflecting their shrewd business acumen and ability to make tough decisions in a challenging market.
Zorn's path to purchasing the Gazette wasn't a smooth one; it was laden with financial hurdles that would have crushed a lesser man. Rather than relying on his father's financial prowess, Zorn turned to alternative lenders, signing promissory notes to raise the funds needed to acquire the Gazette, meet payroll, and replenish newsprint. His determination to succeed on his own merit was a testament to his tenacity, ambition, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Despite their diverging political opinions, Zorn and Hollenbeck formed a surprising alliance, often journeying together to attend Masonic Lodge meetings and Missouri State Press and Ozark Press Association conferences. Their mutual professional respect provided an intriguing subplot to their ongoing journalistic rivalry.
Even amidst the cutthroat competition for the influential role of Postmaster, their camaraderie remained unscathed. Zorn held the title of Postmaster during President Woodrow Wilson's two terms. However, the politically volatile landscape of Howell County, predominantly a Republican stronghold, added a layer of uncertainty to his tenure. This came to fruition when President Warren Harding discharged him in 1922 after Zorn made disparaging remarks about the President in his newspaper. Yet, undeterred, Zorn pressed on.
Embracing technological innovation, Zorn, in 1910, became the pioneering figure to introduce the first power press and typesetting machine in this part of the Ozarks. Demonstrating his hands-on approach to journalism, he embarked on a journey to New York to visit the factory of the Merganthaler Linotype Company. Here, he observed the process of building these machines firsthand and mastered the installation and operation, investing $4,500 in cash, an amount equivalent to nearly $135,000 today.
In 1912, marking another milestone in his life, Zorn constructed the building that would serve as the home of the Howell County Gazette for the remainder of the paper's existence. Situated at the intersection of Leyda Street and Aid Avenue, the ground floor of the edifice housed the Gazette offices and printing equipment, while the top floor became his residence.
Soon after settling into his new dwelling, Zorn entered a new phase of his life. He married his childhood sweetheart, Miss Ollie Goacher, surprising her with their new home. Ollie, no stranger to the workings of the Gazette offices, had spent a part of her early life working there before she moved with her family to California. In California, she continued her relationship with the world of newsprint, working for a local newspaper. In 1912, upon receiving a marriage proposal from Zorn, she returned to West Plains to start a new chapter of her life.
Being the editor of a country newspaper was a challenging task, to say the least. The job required unwavering commitment and an ever-ready attitude to cover breaking stories. No event was too minor or too significant for Zorn, who was always on the front lines of action. This dedication was encapsulated in his coverage of the West Plains Dance Hall Explosion on April 28, 1928. The editor of the Kansas City Star lauded Zorn's resilience as he worked throughout the harrowing night rescuing the injured and preparing his story and news pictures, ready for the city papers by morning.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the Zorn family in 1932 when Will Zorn succumbed to influenza at the age of 58. His unexpected death left a massive void in the journalistic landscape of West Plains. However, his legacy did not die with him. His wife Ollie, already well-versed in the publication process, took over the management and editing of the Howell County Gazette. With the support of the Williams sisters of Quill fame, she navigated the intricacies of the male-dominated world of publishing with remarkable aplomb.
In 1934, in a turn of events reminiscent of her late husband's tenure, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed her as Postmaster, ousting the Republican Arch Hollenbeck and filling a term that would have been Will's.
A testament to his profound influence on the community, Will Zorn's funeral saw a vast congregation of esteemed business personalities, newspaper editors from across the state, and Democratic Party leaders. Eulogies flowed from all corners, and his loss was mourned by hundreds across Missouri and the nation.
Less than a year after his death, the Howell County Gazette celebrated its 52nd anniversary as the pioneering Democratic newspaper in Howell County. With a history rooted in 1881, when it was established by Mills Williams, the newspaper passed through various hands before landing in Zorn's in 1902. In October 1933, Ollie Zorn sold the Gazette to Champ Clark Buckner, a fervent Democrat from Pike County, Missouri.
In a heartfelt tribute to Will Zorn, J.K. Hutsell penned an eulogy titled, "Militant Editor Dies" in his magazine, "The American Press" in January 1933. He recalled Zorn's remarkable journey from setting his first stick of type at the age of fifteen to making the Howell County Gazette one of Missouri's best-known weeklies and establishing himself as one of the most recognized men and editors in the region.
His unwavering dedication to his town and ceaseless service to the West Plains community was lauded, as Hutsell highlighted Zorn's multi-faceted roles. Apart from being a newspaperman, Zorn also served as the President of the West Plains Wholesale Grocer Company and the Southern Serum Company. He held shares in the (milk) Condensery and the Building and Loan Association. He was also a significant stockholder in the West Plains Creamery.
Unfazed by the prospect of libel suits, Zorn was always prepared to voice his critique of public officials if it served the public interest. He never shied away from a legal battle, and his victories were often announced in a banner headline across the first page. His defiant spirit was evident in the libel case lodged by J.B. Aldridge, the Sheriff of Howell County, in 1924. Zorn was initially sued for $800 over an article he published, but he fought back in court and won, a victory he celebrated in true Zorn style with an entire front-page article titled, "Zorn Beats Aldridge in Libel Suit."
His passion for politics extended far beyond his editorials. Zorn was not only an ardent supporter of the Democratic party, but he also served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention twice in his lifetime. His influence reached far beyond Howell County and extended into the national political stage. Zorn's in-depth coverage of politics, from local elections to presidential races, made the Howell County Gazette a must-read for anyone interested in the political landscape of Missouri.
Despite his many achievements, Zorn remained a humble man at heart. He was an active member of the community, not just as a newspaperman but also as a civic leader. He served as President of the West Plains Rotary Club and was a member of the local Masonic Lodge and the Christian Church. He was known for his generous spirit, often donating his time and resources to various community projects.
However, it was his role as a husband and father that defined him in his private life. He was a loving husband to Ollie and a dedicated father to their children, fostering in them the same passion for public service and journalism that had driven him throughout his life.
Upon his death, tributes poured in from across the country. One such tribute came from an unexpected source, his long-time rival, Arch T. Hollenbeck, who wrote a heartfelt eulogy in the West Plains Journal. Hollenbeck highlighted Zorn's passion for journalism and his dedication to the truth, even when it put him at odds with those in power. He acknowledged their fierce rivalry but also praised Zorn's unwavering commitment to his community.
The legacy of William Harry Zorn lived on, not just in the pages of the Howell County Gazette but also in the hearts of the people of West Plains. His contribution to journalism, his staunch advocacy for the truth, and his dedication to his community continue to inspire future generations of journalists.
To this day, the name Zorn is synonymous with integrity and dedication to truth in the realm of journalism in West Plains, a fitting tribute to a man who gave his life to the noble cause of shedding light on the truth.